Saturday, November 30, 2013

Three Mysteries: John Sandford's Storm Front, Sue Grafton's W is for Wasted and Louise Penny's How the Light Gets In

While reading Storm Front (Putnam, 376 pages, $29.50), John Sandford’s seventh Virgil Flowers crime novel – there are 23 Prey novels and four in the Kidd and LuEllen series – I couldn’t help thinking of the term “MacGuffin,” popularized in the 1930s by Alfred Hitchcock, which can be loosely defined as the plot element that motivates a story’s characters. The "MacGuffin" in this novel is a stele, a fragment of a monument from Middle East antiquity, with inscriptions in Egyptian hieroglyphics and some form of primitive Hebrew. The novel opens with the piece of stone, a foot long by 10 or so inches across, being stolen by the archaeologist who discovered it, who then smuggles the fragment out of Israel and into the United States, specifically to Mankato, Minnesota. Flowers, an agent of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, is in pursuit of fraudulent barn-wood dealer Florence “Ma” Nobles, a frisky thirty-something single mother of five “intra-ethnic fatherless boys.” Ma denies Virgil’s accusation, and is also, for her part, pursuing Virgil: " ‘Instead of talking about barn lumber we oughta talk about how to scratch my itch,’ Ma said, pushing out her lower lip. ‘Here it is July and I ain't been laid since March the eighteenth. You're just the boy to get ’er done, Virgie.’ ”

But before he can do anything about the fake-lumber case, or about Ma’s itch, Virgil is assigned to meet and assist an agent from the Israeli antiquities institute, who has been given the task of recovering the stele. Unfortunately, the man who stole it, Rev. Elijah Johnson, is in his home territory, difficult to find and determined to sell the piece of rock to the highest bidder. And the highest bid could be very high indeed, perhaps in seven figures. Who would be interested? Crazies, the Israeli agent tells Virgil. What kind of crazies? “Palestinian crazies, Syrian crazies, Egyptian crazies, maybe a couple of Israeli crazies. Turks. Some Americans, too, I suppose. Maybe the Pope.” Why so many people so interested? Virgil speculates that the stone is some sort of Dan Brown-style symbol of some deep-seated religious cause. But one thing is for sure: A lot of people want it, and they are single-mindedly in pursuit of it. The chase goes on all over rural southern Minnesota, with several varieties of crazies after the elusive Rev. Johnson. Some want to pay for the stone, and some plan to steal it. Inevitably, Virgil finally takes possession and returns it to the Israeli authorities. That’s not the end of the story, but that’s as much as a responsible reviewer can reveal, though it’s safe to say Ma Nobles makes several more interesting appearances. A fast-paced and entertaining novel.

It was very clever of Sue Grafton to keep her Kinsey Millhone novels pretty much set in the 1980s, when Kinsey is in her mid-30s, the prime of her life, living near the beach in a renovated guest house with an 80-something landlord who bakes and watches her back. And, not incidentally, a time without cell phones or omniscient, omnipresent computer databases. W is for Wasted (Putnam, 484 pages, $31), Grafton’s 23rd, starts with two deaths, both involving men with tenuous connections to Kinsey, and which change her life. The first dead man is another private detective, Pete Wolinsky – “morally shabby, disorganized, and irresponsible with money” – who is shot to death while on a case that has no connection to Kinsey or anything going on in her life, though she knew him a bit from early in her career. The second dead person is a homeless man who had been living on the beach, one of a small but tightly knit community of homeless people. His death, in his sleep, is apparently of natural causes, but when the medical examiner searches the body, he finds a slip of paper with Kinsey’s name and number, and calls her hoping she can identify the man. She can’t. Why would a homeless alcoholic need the services of a private detective? Kinsey “takes on the case,” even though the bum never got in touch.

It isn’t long before the two cases begin bumping into each other, and over time become inextricably intertwined. Wolinsky’s part of the story is told mostly in flashbacks, revealing him as an improbably sympathetic character, a happily married guy who’d like to treat his hard-working wife to a nice vacation, but who thinks the best way to get the money for that is to cheat his client and, eventually, to practise blackmail. Still, by the time he dies, you’re sort of rooting for him. Meanwhile, Kinsey is pursuing the mystery of the man with her number in his pocket, and the case takes her in several surprising directions, examining the dynamics of homelessness and the ethics of medical experimentation, and revealing more about Millhone’s mysterious family roots, which she has been uncovering piecemeal over the course of several earlier novels.

This is another finely crafted, intricately plotted and totally convincing story by someone who knows what she’s doing. The period details are lightly layered into the novel’s mix, and Kinsey Millhone – tough, smart, stubborn – is a treat. Every supporting character, however minor, is well drawn and convincing. The homeless community on the beach is entirely plausible and likeable, and even the dead homeless man is fleshed out during the course of the investigation. Kinsey’s elderly but spry landlord, the happily retired Henry – always there with a bun or some hot soup – could support a series of his own, especially if you throw in his many oh-so-quirky brothers. And did I mention the cat?

How the Light Gets In (Minotaur, 404 pages, $29.99), Louise Penny’s ninth novel featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, head of the homicide squad for the Sûreté du Québec, is everything Penny’s fans could have hoped for: complex and carefully plotted, with tension that mounts by the page, and full of the insightful character studies Penny – in Gamache’s wise, amiable voice – does so well. The Gamache books have been called police procedurals, but it’s the people who make the stories sing, especially the inhabitants of the little town of Three Pines, Quebec, the by-now-legendary village hidden in a valley in the Eastern Townships, a village that isn’t on any map and in which cell phone and wireless computers simply do not work. Those who follow the series will know that Gamache is in deep trouble. His boss, Chief Superintendent Francoeur, has a hidden agenda, a group of followers who will do anything for him, and contacts at the very top of the Quebec government. He also despises Gamache, and has been doing everything he can to make the Chief Inspector’s life miserable. The carefully selected members of Gamache’s homicide team have been dispersed throughout the SQ, and replaced with lazy, sloppy and disrespectful detectives. Gamache’s long-time, loyal second in command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, who at one point was about to marry Gamache’s daughter, has been submerged in a fog of drugs and bitter resentment, and has become one of Francouer’s creatures.

Gamache is left with his faithful assistant, Inspector Isabel Lacoste, and the reliable support of the residents of Three Pines. Thankfully, however, the fatalities are not, this time, Three Pines residents. There are two victims, both of whom die in Montreal. In fact, it looks as though Audrey Villeneuve, the first of these, committed suicide by throwing herself off the Champlain Bridge. The second is more problematical: One of Gamache’s Three Pines friends, bookstore owner and one-time psychotherapist Myrna, calls him to report that her friend Constance Pineault, who was expected to visit the town for Christmas, hadn’t appeared and could not be reached. Would Gamache look into it? Look into it he does, with his usual combination of sympathy and perceptiveness, and with the aid of Lacoste and even Agent Yvette Nichol, the ill-tempered and possibly unreliable computer whiz fired by Gamache in an earlier book. It soon becomes known that Contance Pineault is not who she appears to be. There was a time, in fact, when she was one of the most famous people in the world, but that was long ago and few people these days know who she really is. Who would want to hurt her now? As for Audrey Villeneuve, let’s just say she did not commit suicide.

As usual, one of the great delights of a Gamache novel is the range of supporting characters, especially the residents of Three Pines: Ruth, the nasty, Governor-General’s Award-winning poet; Gabri and Olivier, the gay couple who run the bistro and the B&B; Clara, the artist whose portraits reveal depths of personality and character that make her subjects uncomfortable; Myrna, the former therapist who runs the village bookstore. To these regulars we can add Gamache’s immediate boss, Thérèse Brunel, and her husband Jérôme, who defy the superintendent to give Gamache critical assistance. And of course there is Gamache’s faithful German shepherd, Henri, who plays a small but vital role.

– Jack Kirchhoff is an arts writer and editor in Toronto.

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